It's been hot. But Richmond County Utilities Director Max Hicks doesn't even have to step outside his Bay Street office building to tell that Augusta has gotten a jump on summer.
The phone calls tip him off, he explains. Usually, he has a few more weeks before people start calling to report neighbors who are violating lawn-watering restrictions.
But this year, he said, "It's already started."
"It used to be that we could expect watering to hit us Memorial Day weekend," Mr. Hicks said. "Not so anymore."
During April 20 weekend, waterworks employees monitoring tanks throughout the city saw water levels start falling significantly for the first time this year. The weather had been hot and dry for several days, and as people arrived home from work and turned on their sprinkler systems, city water pumps began working overtime.
"It really jumped on us, but we met it," Mr. Hicks said.
This weekend's rain did little to improve the area's dry conditions. To put it in perspective, Mr. Hicks said it would take the equivalent of 10 to 16 of Friday night's storms to make up the rain deficit.
"It helps, but we're still in a drought," he said Saturday afternoon.
Recent renovations to the city's utility systems have markedly improved the delivery of water to Augusta-area homes and businesses, particularly those in the city's southern and western subdivisions.
Just a few years ago, a spring heat wave probably would not have been met with such a cool reaction. As recently as summer 2000, city water tanks were regularly bottoming out. After a long day of lawn watering, residents citywide were met with dry faucets.
At the time, utility officials explained that the number of new homes in south Augusta overwhelmed the small water lines running into them; older neighborhoods, such as Vineland and National Hills, had the infrastructure but needed more.
By 1998, the problem was being called a crisis - one that politicians now can say they're relieved has passed.
"We've come a long way," said Commissioner Andy Cheek, who represents some of the south Augusta subdivisions hit hardest by empty water tanks in years past.
"We have come back from the edge as far as being marginal in our water systems supply capabilities," he said. "We're not there yet, but we have a plan, and I feel very optimistic about it."
Augusta's water system now delivers, on average, 6 million more gallons a day than it did in 1996. During high-usage months, system averages had hovered between 25 million and 27 million gallons a day.
By 2001, those averages had jumped by almost 10 million gallons a day, ranging between 32 million and 35 million, with use reaching 40.5 million gallons during one day in July.
People are using more water partly because the city has added more water customers in outlying areas. But drought conditions have also increased demand.
Mr. Hicks says he's optimistic that almost every subdivision in Augusta with a history of water-delivery problems - except for a few spotty areas where work remains to be done - will see a marked improvement as a result of recent upgrades.
For example, the National Hills area, which saw some of the most widespread water shortages, is expected to have consistent water pressure throughout this summer. In addition to a new 12-inch line, a system of 8- and 6-inch lines has been installed to help maintain water pressure in the area.
Also, an 18-inch line to the Berckmans Road water tank has helped maintain the water levels.
South Augusta also has seen significant utility work, including the addition of new water tanks and larger water lines.
"The thing that really turned it around out there was the completion of the 20-inch water line," Mr. Hicks said, in addition to a 5 million gallon tank on Morgan Road.
"Now we have plenty of water," Mr. Hicks said.
Even so, another water tank is being built in the Fairington subdivision, and a 15 million gallon treatment plant on Tobacco Road is scheduled for completion by summer 2004 - all in anticipation of continued development throughout south Richmond County.
Some basic work still remains in a few areas, including in west Augusta's Brookfield subdivision, where low water pressure continues to be a problem. A 16-inch water line is being run to the area, but likely won't be completed until midsummer.
Older lines in the city's historic Summerville section need to be cleaned and relined so that at times of high demand low water pressure doesn't become a problem, utility officials report.
With the millions of dollars being spent to improve water delivery, it's unlikely the city would see shortages similar to the ones experienced in 2000. But Mr. Hicks says he's reluctant to say "never."
Today, Richmond County is able to treat as much as 60 million gallons of water in a day, and during the summer months the city uses, on average, less than half that. At peak times, however, use has reached 39 million gallons.
Columbia County also appears to be in good standing, and, pending a state permit, the Clarks Hill Water Treatment Plant will be able to treat about 39 million gallons a day. Local use has reached only about 15 million gallons a day.
Both counties prohibit watering on Mondays, allow watering for even-numbered addresses on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and for odd-numbered addresses on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
State restrictions also are in place, although area residents are asked to comply with the local rules.
Until there is significant relief from dry conditions, the restrictions are expected to remain this summer, water officials say.
Water use is not restricted in Aiken County.
"We're in good shape," said Larry Morris, the director of public works for the city of Aiken. "If you look at the system running for a one-day period, we have a capacity of about 17 million gallons a day.
"About two years ago in the middle of the drought, when we hadn't had rain in a long time, we hit about 16 million. Since then, we've brought on two more wells, so we're very confident right now."
North Augusta has a capacity of 14 million gallons a day, said Mark S. Tate, the director of public works and utilities, and daily peaks are running at 4 million to 5 million gallons.
"We've had problems in the past, but we just went through a water plant upgrade from 8 million to 14 million last year," he said.
End in sight
The Augusta area is in its fourth year of drought conditions, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources. The last major drought to hit the Augusta area lasted from 1986 to 1988.
"It would take two or three years of good rain to make that up," Tim Hawks, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Columbia, said in reference to the current drought.
Although climatologists' predictions differ, Mr. Hawks said his weather service models show that dry conditions won't continue much longer.
"It looks like they're expecting us to pull out of the drought in the next six to nine months," Mr. Hawks said.
During times of drought, water restrictions provide a much-needed safeguard. But when, and if, the restrictions are removed, water officials say, Augusta's system could face its toughest test yet.
"One of these days it's going to be lifted," Mr. Hicks said. "And when it is, we'll be ready."
In Richmond and Columbia counties, the following restrictions apply to residential and commercial watering:
MONDAYS: No watering
TUESDAYS, THURSDAYS AND SATURDAYS: Even-numbered addresses
WEDNESDAYS, FRIDAYS AND SUNDAYS: Odd-numbered addresses
Staff writer Eric Williamson contributed to this report.
Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215or heidi. firstname.lastname@example.org.